Ancient History & Civilisation

3. The Historical Background

The excavation of sites and decipherment of texts has taught us a great deal about the historical and the literary background of the Epic. Although only the last version, that of Assurbanipal’s library, has survived as a relatively complete work, it appears that all the most important elements of the story existed as separate poems in the older Sumerian literature, and may have been, indeed probably were, composed and recited long before they were written down. While no element of the story can be later than the destruction of Nineveh in the seventh century, a recurring situation typical of the third millennium is discernible behind much of the action, and probably provided its context. Behind this again the tradition reaches back into a preliterate age on the borderline of legend and history, a little later than the Deluge, when gods were replaced by mortals on the thrones of the city-states. This was the age of the Archaic Sumerian civilization.

The Sumerians were the first literate inhabitants of Mesopotamia, and theirs is the language of the oldest tablets from Nippur which relate to Gilgamesh. They had already irrigated the country and filled it with their cities, before it was conquered by Semitic tribes in the course of the third millennium. They were themselves probably conquerors from the north and east, who arrived during the fourth millennium. The influence of this gifted people, shown in laws, language, and ideas, persisted long after they had been conquered by their Semite neighbours. It has been justly likened to the influence of Rome on medieval Europe. Their language was still written, like the Latin of the Middle Ages, centuries after they had lost their political identity. It is therefore no anachronism to find the early Gilgamesh texts still written in this ‘learned’ language, although most of them date from the beginning of the second millennium, after the Semitic conquest.

Excavation has shown that the Archaic Sumerian or Early Dynastic civilization of the early third millennium follows notable flood levels at several important sites: Shurrupak, Kish, and Uruk among them. These levels close the last prehistoric period, the Jemdet Nasr Period of the archaeologists; but there is no proof of their being strictly contemporary. An earlier disaster, identified by Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur, was of only local extent, and archaeological evidence does not support any single overwhelming catastrophe; nor was a disastrous flood among the earliest of ancient Sumerian traditions. In later Sumerian, as in Old Babylonian writings, flood and deluge are sent by the gods, along with equally catastrophic visitations of plague, drought and famine. Five cities are named as existing before the Deluge, and to them ‘Kingship was let down from Heaven’. After the catastrophe ‘Kingship once more descended’, and the city-states which then arose were often at war with one another. The semi-historical ‘Sumerian King-List’, composed at the beginning of the second millennium, shows Kish as the first city to gain pre-eminence; but after a time Uruk defeated Kish and took away this supremacy. These two states were traditional rivals. In the King-List Gilgamesh is named as fifth ruler of the first post-diluvian dynasty of Uruk (see below).

Because of their wealth the cities were great prizes, tempting to the wild Semitic tribes of Arabia, and to the warlike people of Elam to the east, and of the Persian highlands. Not long after the fall of the dynasty of Uruk, when the Semites had established themselves at Agade in the north, Sargon, their king, claimed that he had a standing army of 5,400 soldiers. Amongst the chief of his exploits was the destruction of the walls of Uruk. These had been a by-word. Men said ‘Uruk of the strong walls’, and Gilgamesh was traditionally the great builder.

In the Sumerian Early Dynastic age each city already had its temples of the gods. They were magnificent buildings decorated with reliefs and mosaics, and usually comprising a great court and an inner sanctuary, with sometimes, as at Uruk, a ziggurat behind. This was a holy mountain in miniature: an antechamber between heaven and earth where the gods could converse with men. So when Gilgamesh calls on the goddess Ninsun, his divine mother, she goes up to the roof of the temple to offer prayer and sacrifice to the great Sun God. The temples were served by a perpetual priesthood, in whose hands, at one time, was almost the whole wealth of the state, and amongst whom were the archivists and teachers, the scholars and mathematicians. In very early times the whole temporal power was theirs, as servants of the god whose estates they managed. Later a single individual became ‘tenant-farmer’ and caretaker, till ‘Kingship descended from Heaven’, power was secularized, and the royal dynasties, competitive and aggressive in aspect, arose in turn. The prestige of the temples remained, however, great.

One of the causes of the militarism of the third millennium was economic. The southern part of Mesopotamia as far as the Persian Gulf was, and is, a flat hot land of marsh and plain, very productive when drained, but, apart from the date-palm, altogether without timber and without metals. The demands of the rival cities on their neighbours in the surrounding highlands soon passed beyond the level of peaceful trade. Merchant colonies and distant trading posts were set up, but caravan communication was often broken, and raw materials were then fetched by force from reluctant tribes in Persia, Arabia, or Cappadocia. Here then the immemorial enmities of hill-tribe and plainsman were established; they provide the setting for a group of Sumerian poems which describe the troubled relations between Uruk and Aratta, a state in the eastern hills.

In the historical material we have nearly contemporary records of several expeditions, undertaken during the third millennium, by Sargon of Agade and Gudea of Lagash, to protect their merchant colonies and bring back timber for their buildings; nor were they certainly the first. Cedar came from the Amanus mountains in north Syria and south Turkey, and perhaps from the Lebanon and from south-east Persia. It is written of Sargon that he made a victorious campaign through the northern lands; and Dagon his god gave him the ‘upper region’ as far as the ‘Cedar Forest’ and the ‘Silver Mountain’. The cedar forest in this case is certainly Amanus. Again when Gudea, the ruler of Lagash, wished to build a temple for the god Ningirsu, ‘They brought from Susa, from Elam and the western lands copper for Gudea ... they brought great willow logs and ebony logs, and Gudea made a path into the cedar mountain which nobody had entered before, he cut its cedars with great axes, cedar rafts like giant snakes were floating down the river from the cedar mountain, pine-rafts from the pine mountain. Into the quarries where no one had been, Gudea the priest of Ningirsu made a path, stones were delivered in large blocks, also bitumen in buckets and gypsum from the mountains of Magda, as many as boats bringing barley from the fields.’ Behind the solid fleshly Gudea we may see the shadowy figure of Gilgamesh, a great builder of temples and cities, who ventured into strange forests and brought back precious cedar-wood.

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